The Last Republican
Kauffman, Bill, The American Conservative
"GORE VIDAL is America's premier man of letters," says Jay Parini in his introduction to The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, and if after reading Vidal on William Dean Howells, Tennessee Williams, various dead Kennedys, and "American sissy" Theodore Roosevelt the reader denies it--well, hie on back to the MFA prison.
The Selected Essays were written over the course of a half-century (19532004), or almost one-quarter of the lifespan of the Republic that is Vidal's primary subject--though it might more accurately be said that Vidal has been a contumacious patriot of the Old Republic for nigh the entirety of the post-Republic era. As such, he is a man out of time in the United States of Amnesia, as he calls his native and beloved land.
What a pleasure these essays are. One imagines Gore Vidal at his writing desk, hint of a smile creasing his mouth as he mints Saint-Gaudens gold-piece witticisms with Lincoln-penny frequency. Here he is on Ohio's greatest novelist: "For a writer, Howells himself was more than usually a dedicated hypochondriac whose adolescence was shadowed by the certainty that he had contracted rabies which would surface in time to kill him at sixteen. Like most serious hypochondriacs, he enjoyed full rude health until he was eighty."
"It should be noted that Vidal is conservative in many respects," writes Parini. "He stands behind individual choice, the limitation of executive power, and preservation of the environment. Like his grandfather, he dislikes the empire.... He would return us, if possible, to the pure republicanism of early America."
That grandfather, the blind Sen. Thomas P. Gore (D-Okla.), was a first-rate populist foe of war and FDR. He was a peace Democrat, which is why no one has ever heard of him. Vidal's education owed more to home than academy, as he read aloud to the senator, from whom he inherited an isolationist opposition to foreign wars, a populist suspicion of concentrated capital, a freethinker's hatred of cant, and a patriot's detestation of empire.
Like Mencken, Ray Bradbury, Hemingway, and other original Americans, Vidal escaped a college sentence. He is the scourge of sciolism, …
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Publication information: Article title: The Last Republican. Contributors: Kauffman, Bill - Author. Magazine title: The American Conservative. Volume: 7. Issue: 16 Publication date: August 25, 2008. Page number: 29+. © 2009 The American Conservative LLC. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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